What is the main objective for every player in the NHL? No matter what anyone says, the most important job a player has is to help his team win. Usually, when it’s a forward they are depended on to score goals—to help the team win. When it’s a defenseman, they’re usually counted on to keep the puck OUT of the net—again to help the team win. It’s from this perspective that demonstrates Chris Pronger’s true value in the NHL.
It seems like every single time I see his name mentioned, it’s in a negative light. When a player is about to be suspended and they are looking at prior history, you’ll hear something like “He’s not Chris Pronger, he’s not that type of player.” When someone drops a vicious elbow (even in Juniors), you’ll hear people say things like “Apparently a wannabe-Chris Pronger -in-training, Cormier and his elbows were at it again Sunday afternoon.” Needless to say, he’s the current gold standard when talking about dirty elbows.
But something that gets lost in all the flying elbows, skate stomps and cheap shots is that he’s good. Really good. And when he joins a team, they end up being pretty good as well. Sometimes it seems like the reputation of Captain Hook’s dirty ways have overshadowed the talented defenseman that would be an asset to every team in the league. The man has won a Cup, a Hart, a Norris and twice led the league in plus/minus. I know the plus/minus might be an inherently flawed statistic, but when you lead the league in any category TWICE, then you’re doing something right.
Just look at some of the selections for next month’s Olympics in Vancouver. Team Canada had a plethora of amazing defensemen to choose from—yet Chris Pronger was one of the guys that was a lock. He was being compared to guys like Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Jay Bouwmeester, Scott Niedermayer and Shea Weber and HE was the one that was a sure thing. That might be more impressive than any plus/minus stat or Hart Trophy.
Let’s bring this a little closer to home. Stop and think about YOUR team right now. For the VAST majority of teams out there, he would be the best defenseman on the team the MINUTE he stepped off the plane. Even if he wasn’t the BEST blueliner, he would certainly be on the #1 pairing in all 30 cities in the NHL. There aren’t many of those guys around.
I love looking at the effect a single player can have on a team. What happens to teams when they get Chris Pronger? Oilers went to the Stanley Cup Finals. Ducks won a Cup. And he’s been one of the best defensemen in the league this season with the Flyers. I’d challenge you to find one player that has been that big of a “difference maker” for his new team. And this is the 3rd time he’s doing it.
Just as intriguing is the fate of a hockey team when Chris Pronger LEAVES their city. How far off the map did the Oilers fall? The Ducks this season? The Blues when he left? Let’s take a quick look at some of the split statistics for each of his teams comparing the last season he plays with a team and the first season WITHOUT him. In each and every case, the team dramatically falls in the standings and gives up substantially more goals against.
The Blues rode one of the best stretches in franchise history during his last few years in St. Louis. They finished 1st or 2nd in their division 6 consecutive years. They were such a mess that after making the playoffs for 25 straight years, they didn’t start to fully recover until last season’s playoff berth. The first season after Pronger’s departure was the worst season for the Blues in 27 years. Coincidence? Here’s a look at difference between his last season in St. Louis and the Blues first season without him:
|St Louis Blues||Season||Points||Standings||GAA||GAA Ranking|
|Last Season with Him||2003-04||91||7th||2.42||14th|
|First Season w/o Him||2005-06||57||15th||3.46||28th|
No example demonstrates his worth better than his single season in Edmonton. He came in, played for a season, led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals and just as quickly requested a trade. As quickly as the success came to Alberta, he took it with him to Orange County. The Oilers have never really been the same since. They are still looking for that elite, shutdown defenseman that they’ve been missing since he left. Fittingly, they’re still looking for another playoff experience as well. I’m going to go out on a limb and say those two things may go hand in hand.
|Edmonton Oilers||Season||Points||Standings||GAA||GAA Ranking|
|Last Season with Him||2005-06||95||8th||2.95||12th|
|First Season w/o Him||2006-07||71||12th||2.99||17th|
And then there was his last stop in Anaheim. I have no doubt that Scott Niedermayer was the undisputed captain in the Ducks locker room over the last few years. But when I look back to the 2007 Stanley Cup champs, the one player that symbolized what they were all about was unquestionably Pronger. The entire team took on his nasty personality and managed to win their Cup through talent and intimidation. I’m willing to bet that Joffrey Lupul, and all the draft picks that were sent to Edmonton seemed like chump change after he led them to their only Cup victory. Just take a look at where the Ducks stand now compared to last season (and keep in mind they’ve won 6 of their last 7 to make it this close).
|Anaheim Ducks||Season||Points||Standings||GAA||GAA Ranking|
|Last Season with Him||2008-09||91||8th||2.87||18th|
|First Season w/o Him||2009-10||85*||11th||3.06||25th|
There are always multiple factors that lead to a team’s demise. Of course, Chris Pronger isn’t the ONLY reason that his former teams struggled upon his departure—but you have to admit that there’s a running pattern here. They’re good when he’s there and they’re not nearly as good when he leaves.
One of the reasons teams suffer so dramatically upon his departure is that he plays in ALL situations. With his booming shot, he’s a capable defenseman on the power play. With his size, grit and reach, he’s one of the best penalty killers in the league. Combine that with even strength play and he was the ice-time leader for the entire 2000s decade. When a team loses the guy who’s ALWAYS on the ice, it’s going to negatively affect every part of their game.
There are a million ways to describe his career path in the NHL. When he was in Edmonton, everyone in Calgary hated him. When he LEFT the Oilers, everyone in Edmonton hated him and his wife. When he won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim, EVERYONE in North America hated him. And now that he’s in Philadelphia, it seems like he’s finally with the team that he’s always belonged–with an entire team that people love to hate.
But next time you see Chris Pronger and you’re overcome with the regular emotions of hate, disgust and annoyance—stop and think about how GOOD of a player he is when he’s not being an asshat. Chances are—if you wanted to win, you’d take him in a heartbeat.